'It is this construction of reality that determines the therapeutic story of the recollected past and the projected future.' (HARE-MUSTIN,1994)
Upon returning from combat, Veterans find themselves at a crossroads. The Warrior's Path offers a lifetime of holistic healing and transformations, allowing the Veteran to serve as a community leader, mentor to the youth and advocate for peace and diplomacy. In Warrior cultures throughout history, this path was not only an option but a calling, a responsibility. In modern society, the entrance is difficult to locate and the path itself nearly impossible to navigate on one's own. Many Veterans, without proper guidance and support, choose a different path, that of the Dysfunctional Veteran. One might argue that returning Veterans aren't choosing this destructive path but, simply, accepting a dominant discourse that appears to be the only choice.
Combat experience inevitably steals innocence, graphically illustrates mortality and strips away blind faith in humanity. The psychological trauma incurred on the battlefield also seems to, in many cases, further solidify the indoctrination and desensitization of Basic and Advanced Military Training. In the crude language of war-fighters, it is said that ‘war is hell, but life thereafter is a motherfucker’. The sudden return home often propels the Veteran, seemingly alone, into an arena of self-doubt entangled with ‘self-ruinous notions of returning or remaining’ (D. Egbert, personal communication, 2013). Attempting to transition back into civilian life often seems more difficult than combat, leading many Veterans to re-enlist and return to the very source of their suffering, risking life and limb to avoid the pain of life after war.
The psychological wounds of war, as recorded throughout history, are a universal human experience and ‘it is our own culture that has socially constructed this universal as a psychiatric condition, burdening the individual veteran with all the negative consequences that implies’ (Brooke, 2009). Following World Wars I & II, manifestations of the Combat Trauma were considered signs of weakness and asking for help was not honorable. Post Vietnam, the term 'shell-shock' gained popularity but those affected remained misunderstood and became stigmatized. Considered mentally weak or crazy, shell-shocked Veterans were termed 'dysfunctional'. At a time when returning home meant being spit on and reviled by their own country, many Veterans took ownership of that label and, today, 'Dysfunctional Veteran' is seen on bumper stickers, t-shirts and baseball caps across the country. To the extreme detriment of Warrior Culture, Veterans internalized this outside perspective and adopted it as their own story. The more recent designation of Post Traumatic Stress as a Disorder, a mental health issue, a psychiatric condition, offered Veterans pathological assurance that they are and, most likely, will remain Dysfunctional Veterans.
A dominant discourse in the Veteran community, the Dysfunctional Veteran story appears to provide the simplest explanation of the altered reality of post war living. No longer does the Veteran have to analyze the experience of war and translate it into lessons for abetter living and more peaceful future. No longer does the Veteran have to be responsible for his or her own healing. No longer does the Veteran have to hide manifestations of psychological wounds of war and pretend to re-integrate into a society no longer understood or understanding. Telling the story of a Dysfunctional Veteran can also be a disclaimer and an apology to family, friends and community. It can be a blanket explanation for mood swings, memory lapses, difficulty concentrating and other symptoms that may otherwise translate as personal to a loved one or co-worker.
Perhaps the most detrimental aspect to the Dysfunctional Veteran story is that it offers entrance into an established community of self-proclaimed Dysfunctional Veterans, with elders, peers and even outside support already in place. Mimicking a healthy community, this group offers little more than reinforcement of the dysfunctional story and assurance that holistic healing is not an option. With multiple generations of voices echoing the same story, an illusion of reality surrounds the Veteran, often leading to a lifetime of pain and suffering, over medication and substance abuse. However, a community that loses an estimated 22 Veterans to suicide every day (KEMP & BOSSARTE, 2013) cannot retain it's members nor attract new recruits with the ease of yesteryear.
Post 9/11 Veterans, as they are officially designated, are fervently fighting back against this dominant discourse in an attempt to end the suicide epidemic, as well as, seek life beyond survival on an individual level. Losing an astonishing number of fellow Warriors to prescription addictions, substance abuse and suicide has sent shock waves through the entire Veteran population. Straying from the path of the Dysfunctional Veteran and attempting to understand the complexities of combat trauma, moral injury and psychological wounds of war, Veterans are creating change. Reconnecting to the community through movies, poetry, plays, music, paintings and telling individual and collective stories in terms other than dysfunctional, Veterans are slowly blazing a trail through years of social construction in an endeavor to find and walk the Warrior's Path. In their favor, Veterans take pride in 'leaving no one behind'. Veterans who are discovering the Warrior's Path and working towards holistic healing are raising the flags, showing other self-proclaimed Dysfunctional Veterans that it is possible to tell a different story. Together and alone, they work towards re-authoring their recollected past and projected future in a manner befitting true Warriors.
BROOKE,R. (2012). An archetypal perspective for combat trauma. Retrieved from the Bulletin of the American Academy of Clinical Psychology,Volume13, Issue 1, Fall 2012.
HARE-MUSTIN,R. T. (1994). Discourses in the mirrored room: A postmodern analysis of therapy. Family process,33(1),19-35.
KEMP,J., & BOSSARTE, R. (2013). Suicide Data Report: 2012.Department of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health Services, Suicide Prevention Program.